When a person is born or a person dies the Jewish community rallies with meals, support, and love. When a person is experiencing infertility the community is silent – and those suffering feel they have to be silent.
This is a strange omission, especially considering that the history of the Jewish people is replete with tales of infertility – Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel all have difficulty conceiving and pray for children.
After being married a little while we soon realized that having a baby was not something that would happen easily for us. Rather than feeling like a part of the community, we began to feel isolated. Friends from the past would say things such as, “We’d love to hang out with you, but then who would our kids play with?”
The road to having children can feel endless and lonely. Watching friends and family have babies while they examine your never growing belly can lead to an intense sadness that only those experiencing infertility can relate to. At an engagement party, someone once came over to us and said “you never change,” pointing to Rachel’s stomach.
After almost three years of many doctor visits, no pregnancies, and thinking it probably wouldn’t happen for us, we did finally get pregnant, only to first have a chemical pregnancy, followed by an ectopic pregnancy. When suffering from pregnancy loss, people are quiet and suffer in silence. There is very little in the way of a support network. Mentioning pregnancy loss or infertility can lead to weird looks rather than sympathetic responses. People aren’t sure how to respond. There are no meals delivered to people suffering from miscarriages, no time for mourning, no time off from work, and people are expected to attend synagogue the week of a miscarriage with smiles on their faces. After all, no one knows the internal struggle that’s going on.
If the topics of pregnancy loss and infertility were less taboo in the Jewish community, people could get the support they need. Dealing with infertility involves a long process of seeing doctors, nightly injections, and early-morning appointments. Many times husbands may not be able to attend the appointments, and wives are left going by themselves. The process may involve missing days of work, additional hormones wreaking havoc on your body, and expensive procedures and medication. For many, adoption may seem like the only answer, but that’s also a difficult, long, lonely road, with expenses that add up quickly.
Ultimately, in-vitro fertilization did work for us and helped us start our family, but many others are not as lucky. Infertility is a lonely experience that changes a person. We will never be the people we were when we first got married. While we knew having a child might be difficult for us, we didn’t realize how long the process would be and the toll it would take on us as individuals, our relationship to each other, and relationships with our friends. At one point after being invited to a friend’s child’s birthday party, we had to leave a little early, and our friend told us, “Don’t worry, it was really only meant for mothers and children anyway.”
The experience of infertility shook our confidence in the Jewish community and some of the friendships we had previously formed. It removed the (possibly naïve) optimism we had when we first got married. After being in the dating scene a little while, getting married seemed like the answer to everything. We would finally be able to fit in and catch up with a community that centers on marriage and children. But rather than fitting in we began to feel more and more isolated. It got to the point that we were jealous of our pregnant pet guinea pig. Our confidence in our community and ourselves was (and still is) shaken.
While the experience of pregnancy loss or infertility will never be easy, perhaps if the topic of infertility were less taboo in the Jewish community, more people would speak up about their struggles and more support could be offered. How can we make the topic less taboo? For starters, synagogues can have lectures to raise awareness of the issue, communities can ensure they include and invite all members for Shabbat meals, especially those who do not fit in as well. Perhaps meal conversations can have less discussion about people’s children, or instead schedule Friday night meals in such a way that kids can be put to bed before the meal or before dessert and the adults can hang out together afterwards. More community events can be offered for people with infertility to interact with each other so that they don’t feel so alone. Synagogues could also organize meals for women who experience pregnancy loss, and communities could organize rides or company for women going to doctors’ visits alone. While there are some support organizations out there, there are few (if any?) Modern Orthodox organizations that help people connect with like-minded couples experiencing infertility.
The more the Jewish community speaks about topics such as infertility and pregnancy loss, the more those suffering from it will feel comfortable reaching out to their community for support and discussing what they are going through. A cultural change like this may not happen overnight, but perhaps future family and friends who suffer will have more support to make the process a little less unbearable. Let’s not allow those in our community to suffer alone and in silence.
When my family sits down to the seder table on April 14, we won’t be passing around the Maxwell House Hagaddahs. We don’t use the Sacks one, anything by Artscroll, or even something from JPS. We will be using “Our Family Haggadah.”
The brainchild of my mother and Savta in the mid-90’s, this DIY publication has been a work in progress that is currently in its fifth edition. While the first versions most likely contained dozens of copyright infringements, the current version is getting closer to an original family document.
We realized that the people around the table wanted something traditionally authentic, intellectually challenging, and unique to our family. As you can see, we have cut many portions of the traditional hagaddah, but have done our best to maintain the essential pieces while creating more opportunities for discussion and questions. Without the pressure to get through so much text, we have the comfort and opportunity to truly be open to any questions that might arise.
If you don’t want to use our haggadah, and don’t have the time to make your own, consider cutting out a few sections and replacing them with open discussion or guided Q&A. You will be surprised to see people refreshed by the change and the chance to make the seder experience more personal.
Seder Table Activities
The other way we’ve adapted our seder is by adding in new activities and games each year. We realized that there is often down-time during the meal (shulchan orech): as soup is being served, between courses, and during dessert. So we play games! We’ve tried a number of different activities over the years including our own versions of Cranium, Mad Gabs and most importantly Jewpardy. It’s not so simple to create your own games, so use the ones other people have already made. Pick a game, print it out, and you’re good to go!
An Activity for Every Family
This last suggestion is more than a game – it’s an interactive reimagining of a 2,000+ year old tradition. Anyone can run this activity at their seder:
Whatever the true origin of the orange on the seder plate, the idea of placing symbolic items on the seder table feels as old as Passover itself. But in addition to the six symbols on the seder plate, the orange, and Cup of Miriam, we can add our own symbols.
Before the seder, send out a casting call to your participants asking them to bring their own Passover symbol to place on the table. They can bring anything they want, but must be ready to explain how it is symbolic of a Passover theme or concept. Before the seder begins, place each of the symbols on the table. As the seder progresses, take periodic breaks to allow the table to discuss one of the objects. Solicit suggestions from the group as to what the item might symbolize and then ask the person who brought it to explain what it means to them.
At the end of the seder, or once all of the symbols have been presented, vote on which item added the most to the seder experience. The winner gets a reserved space at the table next year!
I wish you the best of luck with a meaningful Passover seder. If you’re looking for divrei torah and other content for your seder, visit http://www.jofa.org/Education/Holidays/Holidays for some great articles and resources.